11 Ways to Cut Back on Drinking

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“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” – Ernest Hemingway

When drinking alcohol begins to interfere with your life, it is time to reassess your relationship with alcohol, your tendencies to drink to excess, or typical situations with alcohol that lead to problems.  For those who are physically dependent on alcohol, identify as alcoholics, or have other physical or psychological problems, complete abstinence from alcohol is generally considered the best solution.

This article is geared towards those who are experiencing problems in their lives based on their alcohol use, but who wish to establish a healthy relationship with and moderate intake of alcohol.  Some refer to this as controlled drinking, and it is considered to be a somewhat controversial alternative to established abstinence groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

According to the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and and Related Conditions, abstinence and moderation were found to be equally effective among self-identified alcoholics.  Of the 43,000 people surveyed, almost 36% were in recovery – 18.2% were abstainers and 17.7% were moderate drinkers.  The controversy, at least according to groups such as AA, is that if one is able to recover to the point of being able to drink moderately at all, then they were never an alcoholic to begin with.

Rather than get caught up in a game of semantics about who technically is and is not an “alcoholic,” for the purposes of this article it is more practical to focus on concrete strategies for someone who is interested in controlling/cutting back on drinking.

How to Cut Back on Drinking

Adapted from today’s HEALTHbeat newsletter from Harvard Medical School and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), there are 11 effective ways to cut down and control alcohol intake/use:

(1) Put it in Writing

Make a list for yourself of all of the reasons that you have to cut down on drinking.  These can include feeling more healthy, sleeping better, or improving your relationships.  Include a separate column of specific consequences that you have experienced as a result of your drinking – be honest with yourself about the true negative impact of drinking on your life and relationships.  Having a physical list can be a helpful motivator and reminder of why it is so important for you to cut down on drinking.

(2) Set a Drinking Goal

Pre-commit to a goal of how much you are willing to drink on a given occasion.  Keep your drinking goal within the recommended guidelines: no more than one standard drink per day for women and men ages 65 and older, and no more than two standard drinks for men ages 65 and younger.  If these drinking limits seem unrealistic or unreasonable to you, consider that about 10% of alcohol leaves your body through your breath, sweat, and urine – the rest must be metabolized.

Alcohol is generally metabolized at the rate of .015 of blood alcohol content (BAC) an hour.  If you are at an event that includes water and food, it may be reasonable to allow yourself more than one or two drinks over an extended period of time, with regular food and water consumption.

(3) Keep a Diary of Your Drinking

For at least three or four weeks, record your drinking habits.  Write down exactly how much you drank, over what period of time, and what the specific situation involved.  Compare your actual drinking habits to your drinking goal(s).  Some find it helpful to record their drinking habits with a spreadsheet tool such as Excel or Numbers.  If you find yourself repeatedly having trouble sticking to your goals, it is recommended that you discuss this with your doctor or a mental health professional.

(4) Don’t Keep Alcohol in Your House

By choosing not to keep alcohol readily available in the house, you are pre-committing to a goal in a similar fashion as someone interested in dieting/changing their eating habits choosing not to bring junk food/unhealthy foods into the house.  If you find this strategy unrealistic for you, or if you live with other people who choose to have alcohol in the house, practice being more mindful of the specific situations/times that you choose to drink at home.

Does it seem like a reasonable time to have one or two drinks at home to socialize or relax?  Or does it seem like you are drinking at home to self-medicate emotions such as depression or anxiety, or do you feel guilty about your drinking?  These are signs that the drinking is problematic and it is time to reassess your relationship with alcohol.

(5) Drink Slowly

Sip your drink; don’t gulp down your drink.  Practice components of mindfulness as you enjoy your beverage.  If you drinking solely for the physical effects of the alcohol (e.g., feeling relaxed, feeling uninhibited, feeling less socially anxious), then you are choosing to self-medicate a larger problem (e.g., anxiety, etc.) rather than enjoying a drinking as a pleasant addition to a social event.  Drinking should never be the “main event.”

(6) Choose Alcohol-Free Days

Choose not to drink for at least one or two days each week.  If this is relatively easy for you, then try abstaining completely for a week or two; was this difficult?  Notice how you feel different physically, mentally, and emotionally when you take a “vacation” from alcohol.  How are your relationships or work different?

(7) Watch for Peer Pressure

Peer pressure isn’t just for teenagers.  Practice saying “no” politely in social situations where other adults are drinking.  Just because others are drinking, there is no obligation for you to imbibe.  Try staying away from people who actively encourage you to drink; this often occurs with people who feel uncomfortable with their own drinking habits.

(8) Keep Busy

Take a walk, throw yourself into your work/schoolwork, take up a new hobby, invest in self-improvement/self-development.  When you are busy doing things that you know are healthy and positive for your life and well-being, you have less time and energy to focus on drinking – not to mention less tendencies to self-medicate emotional distress.

(9) Ask for Support

Cutting down on drinking is very difficult for some people.  If you are experiencing difficulty or repeated failed attempts at cutting down, seek out support from others.  Your doctor, mental health counselor, friend, or partner is often more than willing to offer you the needed support.  Give people a chance to support you – reach out.

(10) Guard Against Temptation

Avoid people and places that typically trigger your urges to drink to excess.  If you strongly associate drinking with certain events, this is a good sign that these events are best avoided during your efforts to cut down on drinking.  Practice mindfulness and monitoring your internal emotions states.  Notice if you are more likely to drink when you are feeling depressed, anxious, tired, etc.  Learn to pick up on your personal “warning signs.”  When you notice them occurring, be prepared with alternative behaviors to drinking.

(11) Be Persistent

It is commonly accepted that most people who make attempts to cut down on drinking have to make multiple attempts before they are ultimately successful.  Be kind towards yourself; don’t let setbacks into your old patterns deter you from your goal of controlled drinking/moderate drinking.  View each setback as a learning opportunity.  What went wrong that time?  What do you need to do differently next time?  Progress is an ongoing effort.  If you fall off, get right back on the proverbial horse.

If drinking has been a problem for you, it is important to accept the fact that learning to be mindful of your drinking habits and your relationship with alcohol is likely something you need to carry with you for the rest of your life.  That does not mean that you need to necessarily accept a label of “alcoholic” unless you believe that this label is helpful to you or truly fits for you.

Learning to have a healthy relationship with alcohol does not come naturally for many, especially those who struggle with overwhelming internal emotional experiences, have a biological predisposition to being vulnerable to the effects of substance use, or who have learned to “check out” of their external world through substance abuse.

The first step is to decide that you want to be present. Once you decide that you choose to be present to your life and the world around you, you will desire “checking out” with alcohol less and less.  Recognize that alcohol abuse is rarely the core problem; it is a symptom of a larger more persistent problem.  Only you have the power to look within and see what that deeper issue is.  Once it is identified, you can begin to address the true issue.  Therapy can be an excellent place to explore these deeper issues.

Once the deeper issue(s) are addressed and you choose to be mindful of your relationship with alcohol, you can expect to watch your problematic relationship with alcohol fall away.  Once you no longer need the symptom of alcohol abuse, it will dissipate.  As long as it continues to give you something (i.e., it is reinforcing), it will persist.

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This article is for information purposes only and is not intended for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation.  If you have questions about alcohol abuse/alcohol dependence or any other mental health issue described above, consult with a mental health professional.

DSM-IV Criteria for Alcohol Abuse & Alcohol Dependence

Featured image: fruit wine by Robert S. Donovan / CC BY 2.0

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